An Interview With Rabbi Shlomo Kay Part II

Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s interview with Rabbi Shlomo Kay (not his real name).  We continued to discuss the financial viability of the kollel lifestyle for future generations.  However, the conversation veered off into personal interests outside of Torah study; interests which compelled Shlomo to venture into the online world of Twitter.

The interview reveals a man with more liberal views than one would normally ascribe to a former Lakewood talmid.  In fact, Shlomo was a surprise to me in general.  At first, I assumed that he might be a baal teshuvah, due to his intelligent observations regarding religion, politics, and economics.  However, it turned out that Shlomo grew up chasidish and by his own admission,

“My formal secular education, if you can call it that, ended at grade 8.”

Speaking with Shlomo has made me confront stereotypes that I have held about those in the haredi community.  Since the haredi community generally eschews college education, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that they are less intelligent than their more modern orthodox counterparts.  For many chasidim, for example, English is a second language to Yiddish.  That language barrier immediately makes for miscommunication.  Secular education, at least for boys, often ends around grade 8 – yet another reason to claim intellectual superiority for those of us with college degrees.

However, while Shlomo might not have had an extensive limudei chol education, he has had an extensive limudei kodesh education.  He has learned with the best and brightest in both chasidic and litvish yeshivas.  It is a testament to his brilliance that, even without a secular higher education, he expresses himself so eloquently and displays such an aptitude for discussion and analysis on a wide variety of topics.

I think the kind of stereotyping facing chasidim today is similar to that which immigrants coming to America in previous centuries faced.  Mistaking language and cultural barriers for a lower level of general aptitude is a common error.

After speaking with Shlomo, I also realize that it’s a mistake to think that the haredi yeshivish life is based on a communal sense of entitlement.  As Shlomo said in Part I of the interview, most young couples enter the kollel life assuming that the husband will go to work at some point.  That naïve and distant plan is shattered when the time comes for its implementation and there are no jobs available.

Below is Part II of my interview with Shlomo.

I asked Shlomo how a kollel couple can afford to have the husband learn and the wife work long term, especially after having a kids.

“People starting kollel planned to get jobs in chinuch, but it’s not happening for most of them.  However, Lakewood is set up for the (kollel) lifestyle.  Babysitting is cheap, many are supported by parents, and (both men and women have) opened successful businesses.  Overhead and advertising costs are low because (many are) basement businesses.  However, at some point it has to come crashing to a halt.  People need not just money, but an occupation.  Most people are not cut out to learn for the rest of their life without a normal job and most people never intended to stay forever.”

I asked Shlomo if he could think of an example of someone who had found an unusually lucrative career after their years in kollel.

“One person became a lawyer after years of learning.  However, you have to be able to afford to do that and be educated (bright) enough – (there is) lots of catch up to do.”

I wanted to know if there has been a rise in charitable collections for kollel families.  Are people having a harder time making ends meet as the generations of working grandparents and parents die out?  Who will subsequent generations depend upon financially, if their own parents are also products of the kollel system?

“There is no rise in the number of people collecting (door to door) for themselves.  (The solution for many is to) open a small business.  You don’t see much (outward) poverty in Lakewood.  The only people you see collecting for (their own needs) are from Israel.  People are working in Borough Park and Williamsburg.  Those who aren’t have some kind of plan in place – (usually involving) government entitlements.”

“Many people are eligible (for government assistance), but they can’t do much with food stamps.  Until the (recent) affordable health care act, it was probably harder to go to work.  You would have to make a lot of money for it to be worth working.  (Insurance can cost) $1500 per month.  If you make less than, say, $40,000 you can get free health insurance, but if you make over $40,000 (you must pay for health insurance).  There is little incentive to work if the job will not overcome that gap.”

I switched topics and asked Shlomo why he signed up for Twitter.

“I signed on to read, and 140 characters or less is pretty appealing to me!  A certain amount of equality (exists on Twitter).  If I make a point (about an article) the writer may (directly) respond.”

“I take an interest in and follow other yeshivish or chasidish people.  I find it fascinating, (for example) @GroynemOx, he seems to keep shabbos and follows an economic theory that is more to the left politically than, Paul Krugman’s from the New York Times.  (Krugman’s theories) are among the most progressive in the country!  I became interested in monetary theory myself personally and it’s interesting to find another chasidic person who also became interested.  Groynem Ox is more vocal and seems to be a more fervent follower than me of theories such as MMT (modern monetary theory).”

“Charedim are usually more right wing (in their politics).  It usually comes from the fact that they only have access to the radio.  (They tend to listen to) conservative right wing talk radio.  Also, the Yated newspaper (a Jewish newspaper printed in Hebrew and English editions) is the voice of Rush Limbaugh.”

“I find it interesting that people who benefit from government entitlements are so against it!  Finding a kid who grew up chasidic (Groynem Ox) who is so progressive is interesting to me.”

“(I don’t) often get to interact with people from different angles of frumkeit.  (It’s interesting to see) what my religion looks like to other people.  Until you see it from other people’s perspectives, (you don’t realize that it’s) not all positive.  You recently wrote a post (critiquing your former viewpoint on why people leave orthodoxy). Seeing it from other people’s perspectives changes your perspective, which has its positives and negatives.”

I asked Shlomo why he wanted to risk seeing his religion negatively.  Why open up a can of worms by going online?

At this point, Shlomo shared with me a treatise he drafted for himself, “The 13 Principles of My (Charedi) Religion.”

Here is the link to Part I of the interview.  Part III of Shlomo’s interview will discuss these 13 principles.

An Interview With Rabbi Shlomo Kay Part I

The other week a commenter on my blog, Dean Cowan, linked to a 2006 employment study done on the haredi Stamford Hill community in London.   Dean referenced this study in response to my article on poverty within the haredi community.  His point was that in the haredi neighborhoods of Stamford Hill and Manchester, there is a greater balance of “learners and earners” than my post suggested.

Although my post was mainly referencing the kollel lifestyle espoused by Israeli haredi society, and the resulting poverty, I also suggested that this way of life is becoming prevalent in American haredi communities as well.  Dean suggested that London was a role model for how economic balance can be achieved in haredi communities.

While the Stamford Hill study was interesting, and did suggest that working for a living is not frowned upon in the London community, it still suggested that most haredi workers lack education and the means to secure higher paying jobs.  Although some men did well in diamonds, real estate, import/export, teaching, and running small businesses, overall the types of jobs that were available without secular degrees offered limited income.

I think that it’s terrific that working isn’t a stigma in Stamford Hill, but based on the study, it seems that higher education still is.  The Stamford Hill community still suffers from poverty and makes regular use of both private and public funding to make ends meet.

At the same time I was reading the Stamford Hill study, I had set up a phone interview to speak with a haredi New York area fellow I’ve become acquainted with on Twitter.  He goes by the handle, @shlomo_kay (not his real name), and I became curious about him when he once referred to himself as resembling a “Yoeli” (a follower of the Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum).

Shlomo is very well spoken, at least in 140 characters or less, and interested in a wide variety of topics in the Jewish orthodox spectrum.  He also has a personal interest in economic theory, which led me to believe he might have a college degree or work in finance.  Additionally, he is fluent in Yiddish, and told me about the scholarly chasidish Yiddish dialect comprised of Yiddish, Biblical Hebrew, and Aramaic that top learners often use in the beis medrash.  This language of discourse is only mastered by the upper echelon of Torah scholars.  He pointed me to a website for examples, but I couldn’t read it, and Google Translate was useless.

At first, I wanted to interview Shlomo about his involvement with Twitter.  I had noticed that there were a lot of Yiddish speaking chasids on Twitter under pseudonyms and I was curious about this “Twitterburg” underground.  However, after reading the Stamford Hill study, I thought that perhaps Shlomo could enlighten me about whether such a balance between learners and earners also existed in Williamsburg or Borough Park.

I am going to divide up the interview into three posts, as our conversation forked into three related but separate roads.  Below is a transcript of my conversation with Shlomo, comprising a combination of direct quotes and my own paraphrasing.

Shlomo Kay is a rabbi who grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park.  He spent many years in kollel and by his description, attended “yeshivish yeshivos, the creme de la creme of ultra charedi type.“  Eventually he made his way through yeshivas in New York, Brisk in Israel, and Lakewood.  He left chasidism at a fairly young age, initially because of the level of learning and eventually because of the friends he made in yeshivish circles.

His ideologies evolved from chasidish to yeshivish, and he currently finds his place in a yeshivish community in New York.  He now works as a rabbi who acts as a consultant on halachic matters.  Shlomo is married with several children.

Shlomo told me that when it comes to haredi  Jews, chasidic and yeshivish groups are often lumped together into one by outsiders.  In truth, however, the two groups’ kollel lifestyles are based on entirely different sets of principles.  For most chasidic groups the issue is secular education.  They are opposed to college in principle, and they frown on a secular education.  Even if they are not opposed to teaching basic skills in elementary school, they make light of it. For them, the issue isn’t the desire to learn or the prohibition of Bittul Torah, it’s about the lack of a secular education.  With the language barrier and minimal education, their choices are limited. In the yeshivish community, on the other hand, it’s all about learning. They are not necessarily opposed to secular education in principle. The driving principle for the yeshivish community is learning Torah.

In previous generations, most chasidim worked, it’s only recently that more people started staying in kollel.  In the past, only the best and brightest chasids stayed in kollel.  Those who were not the best and brightest went to work after high school.  However, even the best and brightest eventually have overwhelming financial concerns and at some point government programs are not sufficient to support their families.  By the time their financial situation reaches a crisis, their only option for a lucrative career is to become an entrepreneur.  However, to be a successful entrepreneur, one has to take risks.  It’s one thing to take business risks when you are starting out at 18 years old, it’s another thing to take them when you are already responsible for a large family.

Shlomo went on to say,

“It’s (the kollel lifestyle) not sustainable, so I believe more people will be going to work.  The trend seems to be heading toward people learning full time, but I think the trend has reached its maturity.”

“As kids grow up and see their brothers and perhaps even their parents spending their whole lives learning and have no future in the system except perhaps to get a job in chinuch and, as in academia in general, (they find that) those jobs are few and far between.  Kids watching this will not want to buy into the system.  They will look for ways to go to work and educate themselves.”

“In the yeshivish population there is a segment that will go to work and even to college. But the trend will likely shift toward people getting education in yeshivish circles.  But by chasidim, it’s not happening anytime soon.  There is a language barrier and minimal education as it is.  They are against going to universities in general.  In yeshivish circles college is Bittul Torah but by chasidim (it’s cultural).”

In Shlomo’s new yeshivish community, most people work.  He says that the most frustrating thing about the haredi lifestyle is that so many people are not planning for their future.  Most of their kids will be growing up in a society where they have no prospects for a sound financial future.

“I am a product of “the system,” but I don’t see how it is sustainable or even permitted on such a wide scale.”

“It used to be that in yeshivish circles, (a man in yeshiva) after a certain amount of years would get a chinuch job, but the field is saturated even for really bright ones.  What’s more, the learning is at a very high level.   The brightest ones are learning in a sophisticated way. The more time they spend perfecting their learning in Lakewood, the more sophisticated they become, the less qualified (they are) to teach kids – too high a level.”

“(The) ones who have innate talent in teaching kids will get grabbed (right away).  (They) spend 10-15 years of kollel perfecting a skill that nobody wants (meaning, teaching young kids).”

“They all wanted to work at some point, but most will be left without any prospects for jobs.  Nearing 40, marrying off children, they have no occupations, and have no patience to learn anymore the same way they did 10 years ago.  Children growing up in these houses will eventually turn away, how far is unclear.”

Here is Part II and Part III of the interview.

Throwback Thursday – She’s ALWAYS Pregnant…

I have to giggle now at this piece I wrote in 2007.  At the time, I had a 2 year old, so being pregnant and being judged for being pregnant was still fresh in my mind.  My youngest is 8 years old now, so it’s been a minute since I have dealt with this issue.  However, my umbrage at critical remarks I received regarding my fertility showcase the stereotyping I felt as the “barefoot and pregnant” oppressed Jewish orthodox house frau.  It reminds me that I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to haredi bashing.  Although I don’t view myself as haredi, folks who wouldn’t know a matza ball from a wrecking ball do.  Like it or not, I have more in common to the outside world with the ultra orthodox community than with the secular community.  This alone should inspire a sense of solidarity and an attempt at mutual understanding.

She’s ALWAYS Pregnant…

So, I was having a conversation with a frum and married friend, who also happens to work as a receptionist in Mr. Frumhouse’s office. She is pregnant. VERY pregnant.

She was sitting at her desk when a woman came in and started making conversation with her. The woman asked my friend if she was Mr. Frumhouse’s wife. She replied that she wasn’t. The woman then responded, “Oh, I thought you were his wife because she is ALWAYS pregnant!”

What the @&#%??!!

I should say that Mr. Frumhouse works in an environment where there is a very large secular Jewish population. I suppose if one ventures beyond the 2.5 kids, your status upgrades to ALWAYS pregnant.

I have another story that happened to me many years ago when, for about 3 years, I really was ALWAYS pregnant. I was sitting in the waiting room at my obstetrician’s office, pregnant with my 3rd and with 2 other very small children in tow.

As I sat in the waiting room, a drug rep (you know the type – skinny, blond, and wheeling a cutesy little piece of luggage with all her wares behind her) came out of the doctor’s office shmoozing with the nurse as she headed out the door. As she passed by me with my kids and obviously pregnant belly, she commented to the nurse “Looks like SHE could have used some of my samples!” (birth control pills)

Again, what the %$#&??!! Hello, I can HEAR you!

Do any of you moms with large families hear rude comments about being pregnant or the size of your family? For that matter, do any of you moms who have smaller families get comments from people assuming you have (or will have) huge families by virtue of the sheitle or tichel on your head – “She’s orthodox, she must have a million kids!”

Post a comment and tell me about it!

Foot Fungus and Vitamin D Deficiency – Health Concerns or Badges of Honor?

The other day I read an article in the Toronto Star profiling the Jewish cult, Lev Tahor.  Court documents have been released detailing evidence of abuse charges leveled against the group by Quebec child protection officials.

One of the allegations that struck me in the Toronto Star article concerned widespread foot fungus among the girls and women.

“A social worker testified at the Quebec trial that the feet of one of the children were blue from the fungus.

“There was not a toe that was not infected,” she said. “It was based in the toenails, which meant that her nails were very, very thick and her feet very swollen, all blue, and all her toes were infected.”

“We heard about concerns about fungus,” said Goldman. “It’s a very, very minor thing, but because there were some concerns we tried to do more than we needed. We brought a special dermatologist.”

The worker testified that the infection was widespread among women in the community, as they were made to leave their socks on. The worker said a meeting with the community leaders led to a loosening of this restriction.”

I have to wonder if, among members of Lev Tahor, the blue fungus is a visible sign that women are complying with the rule of constant foot covering?  Obviously, the condition must cause extreme discomfort and is aesthetically distasteful, but might it also be a cause of pride for women who put their own comfort and vanity aside for the sake of faithful adherence to extreme modesty codes?

This made me wonder about another commonly diagnosed ailment among members of the orthodox community, vitamin D deficiency.  In 2001, the British Medical Journal published a report that concludes that ultra orthodox women are at a higher risk for vitamin D deficiency.  The study also says that there is a higher prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among women in other religious groups whose skin doesn’t get sun exposure, such as those within Muslim and Bedouin communities.

This study came on the heels of another smaller study profiling orthodox adolescent girls and boys, who were found to have significantly lower spinal bone mineral density than their non-haredi counterparts, partly because of lack of exposure to sunlight.  The boys were actually found to have greater risk than the girls, due to studying in a closed beis medrash all day.

Although not a visible ailment, being diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency could indicate strict adherence to the laws of tznius.  I myself was diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency this summer, and had to take an 8 week megadose of the supplement.  This surprised me, because although I dress fairly modestly, I often am outdoors in the sun biking, walking, or jogging.  One Chicago area doctor says that 70% of her patients are vitamin D deficient.  Because of our cold climate, we are covered up around 9 months of the year, leading to lack of sun exposure to the skin.

In my case, I suppose the deficiency is due more to my climate than my extreme piety.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if I deserve  a small sense of pride that I have lab results proving my lack of skin exposure to the sun?  Is vitamin D deficiency a badge of honor among those of us who strive to dress modestly?  I can imagine women lining up in droves at the Osco pharmacy, receiving a blue ribbon of recognition along with their 50,000 IUs of vitamin D.  Of course, men are diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency too, and that could attest to their dedication to learning Torah.  Is it praiseworthy to suffer a non life threatening medical condition for the sake of Torah observance?

Politically Correct Discrimination Against Jews and Women

There is a growing awareness in the Jewish community that the new politically correct way to condemn Jews is to condemn Israel.  Critiquing a country’s policies is more socially acceptable than critiquing an entire religion.  A November Haaretz article discusses ancient anti-Semitic themes that crop up in criticisms of Israel.

“…an ancient anti-Semitic theme is that Jews and Judaism stand in the way of some form of universal (re: European) harmony.  former U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s comments that Germany’s “obsession” with defending Israel prevents concerted European action to pressure Israel, is one example of such a transformation of an ancient theme.”

“Another ancient theme is that Jews use money in order to manipulate world affairs and steer governments away from the will of the people….Today, it has evolved in the Israeli context: To use Straw’s comments as an example, “unlimited funds” available to Jewish organizations and to AIPAC to divert American policy. The implication again is that without these funds, U.S. policy would be substantially different, and that it would no longer stand in the way of global harmonious action to pressure Israel.”

Recently, The Washington Post reported that the American Studies Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history approved an academic boycott of Israeli universities over the objections of numerous former presidents of the organization and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who angered activists by saying that he does not support a boycott of Israel (though he does support a boycott of Israeli products in the occupied territories).  Several universities, including Harvard, have slammed the boycott.   Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University both said they are withdrawing their memberships from the American Studies Association, and other schools are considering doing the same thing.

While reading about this growing method of couching discrimination in politically acceptable jargon, I was reminded of a different way to discriminate using underhanded means.  I am talking about using religious piety to mask sexism.

In many segments of the orthodox world, it is politically correct to be ever more stringent in the area of tznius, and warn of the untold level of harm that will come to communities where women are not dressed modestly.   Fire and brimstone speeches warning of the tragedies that will befall us due to short skirts, sexy sheitels, or low necklines are well received from orthodox pulpits, publications, and pashkevillin around the world.

I’ve previously shown examples on my blog of proclamations claiming that women covering up can prevent car crashes, enhance parnassah, and generally cure societal ills.  Tznius standards are detailed down to the button and used as an excuse to exclude women from the public sphere, including synagogue involvement and the IDF.  There are those who are starting to recognize this phenomenon and are speaking out against using modesty as a rationale for oppression.

Halachic pronouncements can be used to justify sexism just as protesting the Israeli government can be used to justify anti-Semitism.   Just because both methods have current social acceptability (each in their own worlds – political/academic and religious), does not mean their arguments are sound.  Of course, not everyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, just as not everyone who criticizes lax tznius observance is a misogynist.  The onus is upon each individual to see beyond the veil of words and fix their gaze upon the true intentions of the speaker.